Cont’d from last week.
The father had just finished eating, as were the others, and was wiping his mouth with a napkin. He caught the other man looking at him, who seemed to duck his head as if dodging a bullet, and with trembling hands laid the napkin onto the plate in front of him.
The wife cleared the table and took the dishes into the kitchen, leaving the father and the son alone with Gbassy.
Dressed in a pair of blue pajamas and bedroom slippers, the son got up, smiling at Gbassy, and went into the living room, which could be seen just from the dining area. He sat down cross-legged on the carpet, opened a book which had been left lying there, and began to read.
Now the father and Gbassy were left alone. At first Gbassy tried talking about the war, as would have been expected, about how government troops were being routed on the battle field, about the news he had heard over the BBC two days before, which said that the rebels had captured Gbarnga and that they were about twenty miles from Monrovia. But the father only shrugged his shoulders, coughed whenever he could, and began instead to talk about the weather, telling the other man (not actually speaking to him because he did not look in his face) that this December was perhaps the coldest. To this Gbassy said nothing but sat looking at the father, who could feel the other man’s eyes mocking him and so fell silent.
From outside came the chirping of crickets. Bullfrogs croaked in the swamp nearby, like so many people farting altogether; and from the kitchen came the smell of palm-butter, some of which the wife had left over and was warming to be eaten the following day. The rustle of pages could be heard every now and then from the living room, where the child was reading. The father and Gbassy, making no further attempts at small talk, sat silent at table. But even so, each was absorbed in his own thoughts, like opponents cycling each other and looking for a chance to strike.
The father was thinking about the position in which he found himself ever since the war began and government soldiers and plain-clothed security agents began hounding real and imagined traitors. Already they had burned down his newspaper offices, calling it “subversive”. It was only a matter of time before they would come for him and his family. Once along with his family he had tried leaving the country for the United States, but they had been arrested at the Roberts International Airport. It was a few days later that he learned that one of his neighbors — and he never found out who exactly it was — had been behind the arrest. And although the soldiers had only sent him and his family back home, often they would threaten to come for them. The father looked at the other man and wondered if he was the neighbor who had been behind the arrest. Could it be that he had done something to the soldiers or were they only trying to get him as they were doing everybody else? At first when he had heard the knocking and then the frantic voice of the man calling for refuge he had not wanted to open the door. But the thought that if he had not opened it for him the other man would possibly have accused him of something which the soldiers, already eager for an opportunity to arrest him again, would immediately take as gospel, left him with no other alternative. Already he had heard most neighbors were turning Judases. And was not the burning down of his newspaper office enough to leave him feeling insecure? As for the chicken fuss, he thought nothing of it altogether.
But the other man had thought about it and knew that it was why he had come; that tonight he would make this man pay for the shame he had poured on him by beating him up for chicken business. It was of course not only the disgrace that hurt him but the prejudice of it all. But he would make him pay. And when the soldiers came for him and his family perhaps he would even help in the killings. This time he thought no longer of the small boy.
The wife emerged from the kitchen, went into one of the rooms, and came back carrying a pillow and blankets. These she handed over to Gbassy and said to him, “You can sleep in the sitting room. In the night if you would like to use the bathroom, there’s one we have in the garage. But come and I will show you.” And she left along with Gbassy.
The father got up and went to the child. The boy was reading a story in the Arabian Nights. So absorbed he was that he took no notice even after his father had stood beside him for quite a while. Obviously the father was proud of the child, which could be seen in the way he stood gazing at him and the smile which had flooded his face, suffusing his whole being as if by the electric lights overhead. Although he and his wife had only the one son and the boy was as yet only nine years of age, the child had always filled him with pride and a sense of self-sacrifice. He hoped his family was in the United States now, for then the child would have had the opportunity for a splendid education. He had wanted the boy to be a newspaperman like himself and possibly even a novelist. Having sent the child to some of the best schools in Monrovia, he had furnished the living room with a number of books, among them stories by Tolstoy, Guy de Maupassant and Chekov, and most of which the child could already read. But here was a senseless civil war in which the child’s future was being threatened for nothing. Every night he was afraid for his life and for the lives of his family. Every knock on the door turned him into a dead body. His thoughts went again to the man he had come to shelter that night and the lingering suspicion that the man might be a betrayer. But then he sighed heavily, knelt beside the little boy and put his arm round his shoulders. The child turned his head, looked up at his father, smiled and went on reading.
The wife came back with Gbassy and said to the boy, “Let’s go to bed, Zaye.”
“Mama I’m reading,” Zaye said, not looking up.
“It’s late, Zaye,” the mother said.
“I’m almost finished,” Zaye said, frowning.
Gbassy said, “I think it’s all right if the boy wants to read. Besides, I will be here with him. When he falls asleep I will go to your room and call you to take him to bed.” And he smiled at the boy’s parents, who seemed only more uncomfortable. But for some reason they said nothing.
Gbassy spread the blankets calmly on the carpet and sat beside the child.
The child’s parents stood there for a few moments, looking down at the man seated beside their son. Both were trembling and seemed to fall apart altogether, like a house following an explosion. But without a word they turned and went into their bedroom, still trembling as if from bubonic plague.
As soon as they got into the room the father and wife collapsed. A groan, as of an animal wounded in all his limbs, escaped the father, who lay flat on the bed. The wife lay on her back fighting for air, as if she had just been rescued from drowning. They lay there for a few moments. And then the wife sat up and said:
“You should never have let this man into the house tonight. I think he has come here not to seek refuge but simply to turn us over to government soldiers. Wasn’t this the very man with whom you had that fight over the chicken?”
“What fight over what chicken?”
“Oh, don’t you remember the day you fought him when our son killed his chicken?”
“That’s been a long time, Korzu. Surely you can’t expect me to remember.”
“I’m sure the man hasn’t forgotten. Did you notice the way he was looking at us?”
“I didn’t notice anything,” the father said, sitting up and shaking his head. “All that came to my mind when he knocked on the door was that I could help a neighbour. He had seemed so desperate, standing out there in the darkness and calling for help.”
“All right, Mr. Good Samaritan, if anything happens to us you will be the one to blame.”
“Listen, Korzu,” said the husband, with a note of annoyance in his voice. “What if I hadn’t opened the door to him and he had brought the soldiers to arrest us? You know ever since the war broke out they have been threatening to come for us. It’s even the thought of what this man is capable of — remember it was one of our neighbors that informed on us when we were about to leave the country — that I haven’t yet found the mouth with which to say anything to him. That is the same reason I’ve left the child alone with him because I am afraid of hurting his feelings in the slightest.”
“It’s the same with me,” said the wife, wiping the tears that streamed down her face. “Oh, God, how can people be so wicked! We can only hope and pray that he hasn’t come to betray us. But if the morning meets us alive do you not think it will be better to leave the neighbourhood altogether? I have heard of a church that’s receiving displaced people.”
“Then we will go there in the morning,” the father said, nodding his head.
He sat down beside the wife. Tears pouring out of their eyes, they embraced and retired to bed, the one trying to console the other. But the father did not immediately fall asleep. Every so often he would get up, slip out of the room and stand in the shadows of the foyer, from where he could see the man and his son in the living room. Yet each time he returned it was only to meet the little boy reading and the man seated quietly beside him. At last the father got tired of it and, with his eyelids heavy with sleep already, fell asleep himself.
It was a little after one o’clock in the morning that the small boy, having read a number of short stories by Anton Chekov, closed the book and looked up at Gbassy, smiling.
To be continued.